24

I used to have a paperback copy of Diplomacy of the American Revolution by Samuel Flagg Bemis, but now I can't find it. I seem to recall that American diplomats in Paris in 1782 (Franklin, Adams, Jay) told a British diplomat that his credentials were unacceptable because they empowered him to negotiate with representatives of the "colonies" rather than of the "United States of America", and that he wrote to Parliament to request a revision of his credentials, and the message reached London in less than 48 hours.

Is that true? Or is some variant of that true? How would the message have been transported? I imagine it might go from Paris to Calais by horse, from Calais to Dover by sailing ship, and then horses carried it from there to London. Were there businesses that would have accommodated an exchange of horses so that when one was exhausted, it could immediately be exchanged for the next at all hours? Could a ship have been chartered at a moment's notice if there was enough money? Would the money have been carried in the form of silver or gold coins? What sort of bodyguard would have accompanied the messenger? Would he and the bodyguard have had diplomatic immunity?

  • 2
    Welcome to History:SE. Could you edit your question to clarify what you've looked into already, complete with links and references, and context if applicable? In particular, please let us know what you find missing or unclear about the Wikipedia entry on the topic, if one exists. This allows those who might want to answer to do so without needing to redo the work you've already done. You might find it helpful to review the site tour and Help Centre and, in particular, How to Ask. – Mark C. Wallace Nov 15 at 8:34
  • 5
    At the time of the question, there were regular packet (mail) vessels crossing between Dover and Calais multiple times a day, so there probably wouldn't be a need to charter a vessel. – Steve Bird Nov 15 at 8:46
  • 2
    I've looked at an Internet Archive copy of The Diplomacy of the American Revolution, and I can't find this claim of 48 hours. The author states that the British diplomat (Oswald) sent the letter to London on September 10, but it does not give any date for its reception prior to September 16 (see pp. 223 ff.). – LegionMammal978 Nov 15 at 22:35
  • 6
    Assuming a constant speed of 30mph traveling the 214 miles between Paris and London; carrier pigeon : seven hours. – Mazura Nov 16 at 0:22
  • 2
    Interestingly, the optical telegraph system (which plays a minor role in Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo) was only invented in 1792, so it is not relevant here. When this network was finished, messages could indeed travel very quickly within France. – S. Kolassa - Reinstate Monica Nov 17 at 2:29
35

The French Postal Service started operation in the fifteenth century and by 1632 - 150 years before your inquiry - there was already a network of over 623 coaching inns operated by it across the length and breadth of France - typically about seven miles apart. These coaching inns provided refreshment, accommodation and fresh teams for all travelers, not just the postal service, who could pay for the service. Anyone with sufficient means and motivation could obtain a fresh horse at each such inn along all major routes - the post roads also first mapped in 1632 - in France.

So in answer to your question - absolutely it was possible to make such a journey in 48 hours. A good riding horse can maintains a working gait (a trot for most breeds) for hours at a time of about 13 to 19 kph (8 - 12 mph). Even at the lower end and allowing time every couple of hours for refreshment and a change of mount, the 300 km from Paris to Calais could be managed in about 25 hours or so (300 km / 12 kph).

A similar calculation for the post road from Dover to London gives a travel time of about 11 hours (132 km / 12 kph) plus the (at most six hours) time to await a sailing tide at Calais still leaves 48 - 21 - 12 - 6 = 9 hours for:

  • arranging a ferry; and

  • the actual sail from Calais to Dover, a distance of about 50 km or 26 nautical miles which could be traversed easily (provided a fair breeze, preferably a beam reach) at about 4 or 5 knots in 5 to 6 hours.

Note that choosing a trot speed just below the typical range (12 kph instead of 13-19 kph) really slows down the passage - but implies obtaining a dobbin, at a bargain price, rather than the quality steeds available at an extra charge. Those horses could even be ridden at a fast canter (16-27 kph) or even a slow gallop (35-40 kph) and changed at every post-station (15-20 minutes!) or two instead of every three or four hours. If affordable this option would enable taking even 15-20 hours off the time taken.


These coaching inns were not small establishments. Here are 1875 photos of one of the last surviving "galleried" London coaching inns, the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane near St. Paul's, built in the 1600's and demolished the following year:

Looking across the courtyard:

enter image description here

Looking into Warwick St. from the courtyard:

enter image description here

  • 3
    +1 Nice, clear answer which leaves little room for doubt. – Lars Bosteen Nov 16 at 5:28
  • 12
    The Emperor Tiberius in the year 9 BCE, using a good relay system covered 295 km (183 miles) in a day by himself. So it's feasible for a single man to go from Paris to Calais in a day. – Carlos Martin Nov 16 at 9:55
  • 1
    @CarlosMartin: As intimated above, a good horse can maintain its trot (say 17 kph on decent roads) for 3 or perhaps 4 hours before resting. If mount changes are suitably available, then 295 / 17 = 18 hours + refreshment time is possible. If mount changes every hour (and of suitable quality - no dobbin can do this) are available a canter (say 22 kph, again on decent roads) could be maintained for 295 / 22 = 13.5 hours + refreshment time is possible. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 16 at 10:03
  • 1
    @PieterGeerkens Yes, I meant that it's even possible for a single rider, even when that man would get very tired. Long-disance horse racing now is limited to 160 km/100 miles because they don't want horses to run during the night and they mental fatigue of the riders is considered too great. – Carlos Martin Nov 16 at 10:06
  • 2
    @CarlosMartin: Yes! Riding a trotter is a bumpy ride - as the rider must post twice for each full stride by all of the horse's four legs. it's almost as tough work as sailing a centre-board dinghy upwind in a stiff breeze. – Pieter Geerkens Nov 16 at 10:15
12

Post stages existed in France (and elsewhere in Europe) before the Revolution

  • where horses would be exchanged along the route

The Wikipedia article Stage station deals more about the 19th century than the 18th century, but otherwise gives a good overview on how the system worked. It also explains the Origin of the name posting:

Medieval couriers were caballari postarus or riders of the posts. The riders mounted fresh horses at each post on their route and then rode on. Post came to be applied to the riders then to the mail they carried and eventually to the whole system. In England regular posts were set up in the 16th century.

The riders of the posts carried the government’s letters. The local postmasters delivered the letters as well as providing horses to the royal couriers. They also provided horses to other travellers.

It was intended not only for carriages, but also for individual travelling and for messengers.

The messenger would start in Paris and regularly change horses on the way to Calais

  • the greatest danger was getting a lowsy horse in exchange

So a messenger could, for the time, travel swiftly between

  • Paris -> Calais
  • Dover -> London

the unknown factor was then only the weather and tide conditions for crossing the Channel using the packet boats or other services that may have been available.

Tour from London to Paris (July 1790) gives the crossing times as

  • about 3 hours, with a rough passage (Dover -> Calais)
  • 5 hours, 11 PM to 5 AM (Calais -> Dover)
    • plus 2 hours waiting for the tide in Calais
    • due low water in Dover
      • last half mile on an extra boat was needed
    • arrival in Calais at 4 PM
    • left Dover for London 12 noon

From the History of Transport and Travel:

Carriages: 17th century
Coaches gradually become more comfortable. The most common design, developed in Germany in about 1660, is known as the berlin. The compartment for the travellers has the shape of a shallow U, with a protective roof above. There is a door on each side and the coach can seat four people, in pairs facing each other. The coachman, driving the horses, sits above the front wheels.

From 1680 glass windows keep out the weather, where previously there were only blinds. The first simple suspension, protecting the occupants against the bumps of the road, consists of leather straps on which the compartment hangs from the framework. The berlin introduces curved metal springs, which absorb the shocks more effectively.

Following the aborted trip to Saint Cloud, von Fersen revived these plans with vigor. In June, he acquired a Berline and drove it to a courtyard at Eleanore Sullivan's residence on the Rue de Clichy in Paris. The escape was arranged to take place on 20 June, coinciding with a particular guard change.

Fersen had urged the use of two light carriages that could have made the 200-mile journey to Montmédy relatively quickly. This would have involved the splitting up of the royal family, however, thus Louis and Marie-Antoinette decided on the use of a heavy and conspicuous coach drawn by six horses.

Due to the cumulative effect of slow progression, time miscalculations, lack of secrecy, and the need to repair broken coach traces, the royal family was thwarted in its escape attempt after leaving Paris. Louis himself chatted with peasants while horses were being changed at Fromentieres and Marie Antoinette gave silver dishes to a helpful local official at Chaintrix. At Châlons townspeople reportedly greeted and applauded the royal party. Finally, Jean-Baptiste Drouet, the postmaster of Sainte-Menehould, recognized the king from his portrait printed on an assignat in his possession. Seven detachments of cavalry posted along the intended route had been withdrawn or neutralized by suspicious crowds before the large and slow moving vehicle being used by the royal party had reached them. The king and his family were eventually arrested in the town of Varennes, 50 km (31 miles) from their ultimate destination, the heavily fortified royalist citadel of Montmédy.


Stagecoach and post chaise: 17th - 18th century
Travel between towns by public transport, in the 17th and 18th century, is a slow business. The stagecoach, a heavy and cumbersome carriage often without any form of springs, is introduced in Britain in 1640.

Up to eight of the more prosperous passengers can be packed inside a stagecoach. Second-class seats are available in a large open basket attached to the back. The least privileged travellers sit on the roof with the luggage, relying on a hand rail to prevent themselves slithering off. This immensely unwieldly vehicle, drawn by either four or six horses, lurches along the rutted roads at an average speed of about four miles an hour. Danger from highwaymen is only one of many inconveniences on such a journey.

Their travels throughout the English countryside by coach provide the chief theme of the novel. A distinctive and valuable feature of the work is the generally accurate description of the old coaching inns of England.


...
The noble and the rich, such as young men on their way through Europe on the Grand Tour, travel in greater comfort - in private, and in well-sprung upholstered carriages. Their favoured vehicle is the post chaise, introduced in France in the early 18th century. Its name accurately suggests a pleasant seat, and an expectation of lively new horses at each post stage during the journey.


From Tour from London to Paris (July 1790)

  • Dover -> Calais : about 3 hours, rough passage
    • Chapter 1
  • French coinage (conversion rate to Sterling) and measurements
    • Chapter 2
  • Calais -> Paris four days and four hours
    • stage coach drawn by 8 horses
    • Chapter 3
  • Paris -> London
    • 89 hours, 'which is 19 hours short of time commonly allowed for the performance thereof'
    • Chapter 24

Sources:

  • 4
    This is incoherent and doesn't appear to answer the question. – hobbs Nov 18 at 4:49
10

No idea if the story occurred exactly as described, but FWIW it is plausible.

Louis XVI sought to flee his plight during the French Revolution a few years later. A number of things went wrong after he left with his family during the night: he opted for a slow, heavy coach instead of the two light ones that had been recommended to him so the family wouldn't be split up; and they had to take care of some repairs along the way. (If memory serves me well they also waited a bit at one of the rendezvous points.)

Anyway, the point is they weren't moving as fast as they could, and when the king was finally unmasked the next day, he and his family were in Varennes, which is to say around 250km away from Paris. Calais is about 300km from Paris. Throw in an extra day to sail to London directly, or to sail to Dover and hurry to London on land, and 48h seems quite plausible.

  • 1
    -1 Sorry, allthough the first answer to the question I don't understand the relevance to the question since not even the postmaster or changing of horses that took place in this event were highlighted in your anwser. – Mark Johnson Nov 17 at 18:12
  • @MarkJohnson: OP asked "Was it possible for a message from Paris to reach London within 48 hours in 1782?" Per this answer, yes it's plausible. – Denis de Bernardy Nov 17 at 20:05
  • 1
    Your answer gave a information about 1 event going east with very slow transport, without any timing result. Based on that you conclude that a distance that is 50 km longer makes the 48 hours plausible. Your answer didn't take into account the channel crossing (plus the tide contraints) nor the method of transport (Assumming a berlin is as fast as a messager on horse, without any time for either) and thus conclude that the 48 hours is plausible based on your given time data. Sorry, for me that is nonsense - thus downvoted. – Mark Johnson Nov 17 at 20:32
  • @MarkJohnson: The longer part of the journey is the French part, and that takes a day -- less than that, actually, since they left at night and got caught during the day. Crossing the Channel takes under two hours with a ferry nowadays. Say half a day around then, maybe a bit more (5 based on your answer). And Dover is around 130km from London. 48h checks out. – Denis de Bernardy Nov 17 at 21:01
  • 1
    Sorry, but that is humbug. 'Nowaday' vessels do not use sails or are dependent on tides as vessels were in 1782. Your answer gave, in no way, shape or form a time frame where one could come to a realistic conclusion that a extremly slow vehicle could be used to conclude that a faster method is probale. Again sorry, but when the underlying data is inconclusave, then the final result, based on that data, is the same. – Mark Johnson Nov 17 at 21:25
1

Pigeons are way faster:

Their average flying speed over moderate 965 km (600 miles) distances is around 97 km/h (60 miles per hour) and speeds of up to 160 km/h (100 miles per hour) have been observed in top racers for short distances.

Where the direct distance from Paris to London is 344 kilometers (214 miles).

Therefore: 344km / 97km/h = 3.546391753h, which is roughly 4 hours.

One has to consider the weather and that they also make breaks.

The mere limitation is that a pigeon can only carry up to 75 g (2.5 oz).

Also birds of prey might occasionally cancel the delivery.


And I've dug up this article, concerning France & England (about 100 years later):

enter image description here

It is save to assume that this service existed long before it had been commercialized and was made available to the general public. Who had access to the service in 1782 wasn't part of the question.

Paul Reuter would be another example for using the same route, but a little earlier.

  • Were pigeons available for such a service in Paris in 1782? – Steve Bird Nov 18 at 15:33
  • @SteveBird for messaging purposes for certain (they can't carry too much, but one can send them in a swarm). My family also has tradition in breeding them; still have kind of "hall of fame" on the wall in front of my digital IT office. The Rothschilds once drastically profited from them, because they were informed before anybody else (would need to look up the concrete situation, but it was a similar scenario as described). Nowadays there's even belts for them, which fits a SD card. – Martin Zeitler Nov 18 at 15:36
  • Interesting answer. This New York Times article is of interest: "At the 16th-century Manoir d'Ango, just outside Dieppe, an enormous Byzantine-style pigeonnier dominates the great Italianate courtyard....A rich shipowner, Jean Ango, Vicomte of Dieppe, built the tower for his 3,000 homing pigeons, who took messages to and from his distant ships, often in relays." Question is, was this still practiced in the late 18th century? – Lars Bosteen Nov 19 at 2:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.